Strangely, the total number reported of Viet Cong operatives captured or neutralized exceeded the estimated number of men and women believed to be the cadre of the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. Had we captured all the members of the Viet Cong reported now in friendly compounds and “neutralized,” the war would be over. An emaciated enemy at that level could not conduct an insurgency.
Sometime in 1969, I can’t remember exactly when, it came to someone’s attention, probably the commanding general of the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam, that this number of captives and neutralized persons was far too many. The suspected flawed data brought to question the validity of the reports coming from neutralization programs.
An operation of the command, called the Phoenix Program, along with South Vietnamese military and paramilitary reported the capture of thousands of low-level Viet Cong monthly. These reports kept coming in until it seemed impossible that the neutralization programs were that successful. No doubt, units captured many who had been in Viet Cong provincial, community, and operating cells. These people were the civil servant structure of the Viet Cong—the tax collectors, the district magistrates, and political cadre. Combatants killed in action were tallied (although the number often included non-combatants ). Often special operations teams would go into a village, and capture Viet Cong officials and they were among the reported number of captives. However, the reports that bothered the command were coming from South Vietnamese sources.
Apparently, I didn’t seem to have enough to do, so one day my superior officer said, “Bill, we want you to check on these figures. General Abrams needs to know if they are accurate.”
During my tour in 1968-69, I had the duties of a “Captive Officer” in the Exploitation Section of the J2. In other words, I was one of three officers responsible for managing intelligence from captured Viet Cong or North Vietnamese personnel. Therefore, giving me the assignment was within the scope of my duties.
The only way, other than trailing behind every unit in the field, every provincial intelligence officer, and every advisor to be with them as they brought in their reported captives, was to check the files of all persons in the captured list. I went to find the files, and after some inquiry, I found them in an obscure office of the command’s headquarters. There were, in fact, thousands of these files. Prepared in Vietnamese made the data difficult to sort through.
Nonetheless, my assignment was to go through the files piled up in this obscure room, look for duplicates, and try to find a more precise number of captives. So, I made myself comfortable and thought I could go through the files in a few hours, and with the job done I could go back to more physical activities. Of course, it couldn’t be done in a few hours. In fact, it took me more than a week working ten hours a day to sort through each of the reported captures.
Because I had spent 12 weeks learning the rudiments of Vietnamese, I was able to sort through surnames quickly and disregard them. There are, for example, a million or more people with the surname Nguyen in Vietnam. I started by looking at given names and photographs. Using that criterion, I sorted the files by the given names. Most of the files had a photo (a mug shot) with the paperwork. The photos would be useful later.
As new files were delivered, I began to believe it was a hopeless task, nevertheless, within a week, I began to notice a pattern. Some of the reported captured people had been captured more than once; in fact, it seemed their capture occurred about every other week. As I sorted through the data, as best as I could understand it, I could eliminate nearly half of the captured people as being of little consequence to the Viet Cong effort. My conclusion was they were part of the Viet Cong personnel infrastructure but were quickly found, rounded up, and brought in.
Duplicated several times were Village names, job titles, and other identifying information. As I noticed that connection, I looked at the photos and noticed that the captive in each report was the same person.
Later in my investigation, I found that this was the pattern of low-level South Vietnamese authorities who faced weekly quotas of captured or neutralized Viet Cong. The command’s suspicion was justified, the number of captives exceeded any reasonable expectation and the data coming to the command was bogus. The enemy was not collapsing before our eyes; the number of Viet Cong personnel in the civil infrastructure of the movement was not decreasing. There was no method to determine the exact nature and strength of the Viet Cong’s hold on the people of the countryside.
Personally, I concluded that none of the intelligence we were getting from provincial or village officials was useful. Further, I found that the overall effort of the command was futile. American units were hard at defeating the enemy, but until the South Vietnamese officials had the same drive and desire to do more than meet a quota of captives per week, we were in trouble.
This minor part of my life’s story came back to me after listening to “Saigon 1965;” this is a podcast of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. In this podcast, Gladwell tells the story of a study done by the Rand Corporation in 1965 to determine the morale and personal commitment to the Viet Cong cause. The Rand Corporation hired a young Vietnamese woman, a refugee from the north, and two former U.S. Army intelligence men, who themselves had been refugees from Nazi Germany, interviewed captured Viet Cong men. These interviews were not interrogations; they were casual in nature and totally voluntary.
The interviews led to the conclusion that morale was good and commitment to the Viet Cong cause was firm. In other words, bombing the Viet Cong, attacking them with large military units, and bombarding them from off-shore vessels were not going to diminish their commitment and likely not reduce their capability to continue fighting regardless of losses.
I recall reading an interrogation report of a North Vietnamese soldier who spoke of being in a B-52 bombing raid. Of course, the bombs dropping from high altitude frightened him, but he found that the most they did in the raid he was in was to churn up the earth. He was buried under soil and debris but managed to free himself. He commented that the damage to his unit was minimal. Most of the men had the same experience he had. The North Vietnamese unit recovered, continued its march south, and later engaged U.S. forces along the Laos Border. Evidently, massive bombing raids were not working either.
There’s a challenge to intelligence reports being made by the President-elect. Probably he is justified in being skeptical about Russian hacking, but he must be careful not to let his skepticism go too far. Regardless the wrong information we were getting concerning the number captives per month from South Vietnamese sources, we were able to adjust the data and turn it into valuable intelligence.
Intelligence is only intelligence, it is not policy, it is not always complete, and it frequently revised, but it is valuable. Commanders who decide to ignore intelligence, intelligence information, and the reports from the field do so at their disadvantage.
When I submitted my report, I believe the commander of the U.S. forces in Vietnam had a better view of what the real strength and depth of the Viet Cong cadre. The Rand study Gladwell describes in his podcast was ignored by most of the senior command of the United States. We fought on under a cloud of deceit not generated by the Vietnamese Communists/Nationalists, but by our leadership. Apparently, it took four years for someone to decide that I should do a study on Viet Cong captives. Had they attended to the Rand report, possibly someone would have realized the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army was not going to end the war until they were entirely satisfied
Photos from Wikipedia and Pritzker War Museum.